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Mass Merchants’ Sales Assistance Lagging TV Trade Up: J.D. Power

8/17/2007 10:45:00 AM Eastern

Westlake Village, Calif. – National full line discount chains are aggressively enhancing their TV assortments, but their ability to sell them is lagging woefully behind.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by J.D. Power and Associates, here, the global marketing information firm known for its independent surveys of customer satisfaction, product quality and buyer behavior.

According to the report, which was released first to TWICE, the TV sales assistance offered by mass merchants including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s fell far short of CE specialty chains on a host of parameters, including product knowledge, proactive assistance and basic salesmanship.

The study was based on 800 store visits in the Atlanta and Denver markets in June and July by confederates posing as customers, in what the company described as its largest observational research project and its first ever in CE retail. The “mystery shoppers” were provided by Boulder, Colo.-based Market Force Information, and were prepped with questions based on feedback from TV sales associates.

CE specialty stores visited included Best Buy, Circuit City, Tweeter, hhgregg, Fry’s, BrandsMart U.S.A., Ultimate Electronics and Rex.

Here’s how the channels performed:

Assistance: On average, it took between 90 seconds to five minutes for a sales associate at a CE chain to approach an auditor, with clerks at Best Buy and Circuit City taking the longest. By contrast, average wait time in the mass merchant TV aisles was five minutes to seven minutes.

Product knowledge: J.D. Power deemed the discounters “barely acceptable” on this count. At Kmart, for example, when asked whether HDMI or component cables would provide the better picture, fully one third of salespeople didn’t know what an HDMI cable was, while another 25 percent didn’t have an opinion. About 2 percent of clerks at CE specialty chains were unfamiliar with HDMI.

The discounters did better at explaining the differences between plasma and LCD. Sears, Wal-Mart and Target clerks cited an average of four to six differences in the technologies, on par with the CE specialists, although less than half of Kmart’s staffers were able to distinguish the principal difference between the two flat panel types. The other 50 percent mentioned nearly three differences on average.

Sales skills: Mass merchant staffers came up short on basic salesmanship. Less than 10 percent greeted auditors with a handshake at Kmart or Target, while 20 percent did so at Wal-Mart and 40 percent shook hands at Sears. This compares to 66 percent at specialty chains, excluding Circuit City, where handshakes were offered less than half the time.

Similarly, mass merchant sales clerks generally did not ask the auditors their names. Five percent or less did so at Target and Kmart, about 10 percent did so at Wal-Mart, and about a third did so at Sears. By comparison, associates at the specialty chains asked for auditors names about half the time, and would call them by name during the encounters. Staffers at hhgregg were the standouts, requesting a name over 80 percent of the time, while Circuit City lagged the group at 25 percent.

J.D. Power considered these simple sales steps “a common courtesy,” given that the customers may spend $1,000 or more with the retailer.

Also, a significant portion of mass merchant sales associates never asked the mystery shoppers a single qualifying question to determine what type and size TV would be most appropriate for their circumstances. Kmart performed the poorest in this regard, with half its clerks failing to make an inquiry, while Sears had the channel’s best showing, with 80 percent of associates asking auditors about their viewing conditions. By contrast, at least 90 percent of CE specialty staffers asked qualifying questions that tended to go into fairly good detail, J.D. Power said.

In most cases, specialty chain associates also walked the confederates over to floor models to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the two flat panel technologies. With the exception of Sears and, surprisingly, the warehouse clubs, very few mass merchant salespeople made any attempt to demo the TVs.

J.D. Power concluded that the skill and quality of discounters’ sales forces have failed to keep pace with their up-market moves in product. VP Chris Denove described this as “unfortunate,” since mass merchant shoppers are generally considered to be less CE savvy than their specialty store counterparts and less likely to conduct their own independent research on HDTVs. “If so,” he said, “these are the customers most in need of a knowledgeable salesperson.”

J.D. Power will release the full report in a Webinar on Sept. 6. For details, contact Denove at (818) 451-7270.

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